I was initially going to write this piece solely about Sel-Mont Drive-In Theatre in Selma, Alabama. I have enough material, including a complete history of its opening and closing to work with.
With memories of two other drive-in theaters my family visited over the years, and stories to go with, it seems appropriate to include everything in one composition. Theater history on its own would undoubtedly be boring to many people.
Selma, Alabama 1958 – 1963
The first movie I recall watching at Sel-Mont Drive-In Theatre was Bambi. This was the original 1942 version where Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter. It left mental scars on me, including nightmares for thousands of other kids. The ending was eventually revised to be less traumatic. Even so, I hear that children and adults still cry after viewing it.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, and Vera Miles was released in 1962. We watched that movie at Sel-Mont. This might’ve been the time dad was in a hurry to leave at the end of the show. He wanted to beat the rush.
My father drove off with a movie speaker still attached to his window. There was such an onslaught of cars rolling out of the place, that my dad heaved speaker and wires to the asphalt like a hot potato. Much akin to the ending of Bambi, it’s a sight that never left my mind.
Often we’d stop at Jet Drive-In before a movie and pick up their burger special. There was a sign out front advertising 10 burgers for a specific price. I no longer recall the exact amount, but my brother Jim believes it was $1.00. That seems a bit unbelievable. Mom would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at times. We had our own popcorn. She always had a cooler for soda. Jim said I spent a good portion of my time during a movie, swinging at the drive-in playground.
During New Years or Fourth of July, Sel-Mont had an early movie and then a fireworks display. One year the whole family went and I do not recall any problems. My brother echoes the same. The following year was a bit different.
Dad was sent to Korea for a one-year tour, leaving mom with me and my brother. I believe it was fourth of July, but at this point can’t be exactly sure? She decided we’d go to a movie and catch their firework’s extravaganza.
All went well until intermission. At this point, some young people took it upon themselves to light their own fireworks. Our windows were down and a bottle rocket went zipping through just missing mom’s head. It sailed out the passenger window striking another car.
With windows hastily rolled up, rockets began hitting our Ford like crazy. It was intentional. Within seconds mother decided it was time to go. We never saw the big fireworks display nor completed the second half of our movie. The next morning, Jim found burnt paint on the car door from direct hits. Mom told me much later in life, that people were heavily drinking that night. She was scared to death.
Lubbock, Texas 1963 – 1967
After moving to Lubbock, Texas in 1963, the Sundown Drive-In on Brownfield Highway replaced Sel-Mont where cheap Friday night entertainment was concerned. Sundown was originally called 5 Point Drive-In. I found an old 1947 ad for their grand opening. Of all things, they advertised a bottle warming service for babies.
I don’t recall any spectacular events happening at Sundown like Sel-Mont. We came late one evening, finding there were only few parking spots left. Dad picked a vacant one and quickly discovered our speaker wasn’t working. We moved to the other side and all was good.
Throughout the first movie, latecomers would roll up to the spot we’d vacated, and then drive away. This went on the whole first show. Watching people’s faces and hearing some of what they had to say became more entertaining than the film. I don’t believe my father made that mistake again.
The old man ran out of gas late one evening after a movie ended. The car had just enough speed to wheel into a closed service station. I learned a trick that night which came in handy years later. Dad took empty pop bottles, and using outstretched pump hoses, filled the containers with what was left inside. Each hose contained a small amount of residual fuel. We ended up with enough gas to make it to another station.
Anchorage, Alaska 1967 –
After moving to Anchorage, Alaska in 1967, I figured my drive-in days were over. Lo and behold, the Sundowner Drive-In Theater was a popular haunt for locals, especially teenagers from East and West.
An unusual part of this drive-in was that each parking spot had an electric heater unlike Sel-Mont and Sundown. The heater fans were noisy and often times put out fumes smelling like burnt rubber. I believe mischievous teens placed rubber bands inside know what the outcome would be.
On one drizzly cold night, dad reached for a heater and was shocked. The water soaked unit had a short in it. After talking with a theater employee, my father found out this wasn’t unusual at Sundowner.
“You best touch them gently to see!“, the fellow advised dad. On one of our next visits it happened again.
This go-around, dad was shocked and lit at the same time. I’m talking enraged. Instead of moving our car to another spot, he deliberately ripped the heater off its mount and tossed it to the ground. I’m sure he was shocked time and time again during his rage.
Score one speaker plus one heater for the old man. All he needed for a triple was to back over a speaker pole. That happened quite often at Sundowner. Poles were bent every which direction. Thankfully dad never hit one.
During my junior high and high school years I attended movies at Sundowner on more than ever. This was the first time I saw people popping out of trunks after parking. Generally it was teens trying to avoid paying . On one instance a car in front wasn’t let through. An employee wanted the vehicle trunk opened. Reluctantly, the driver did so and three high-school age students crawled out. They were all asked to leave.
The last movie I remember watching at Sundowner was actually not intended to be one movie, but three Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns played back to back. Fistful of Dollars, The Man with no Name, and, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The reason I remember this, is because Eastwood only starred in three such Italian made movies.
I believe this might’ve been in April when it was still chilly at night. Jim, Jeff, and I took my 1954 Chevrolet. That was a big mistake because the vintage-car-heater barely put out at idle.
When the first movie began playing there were perhaps 50-cars total. We noticed right away that the actor’s words did not go with their lips. This made for an agonizing 90-minutes. We’d actually came that night to see, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Of course, theater management made sure that was the last movie to be shown.
When the second movie started, Sundowner’s parking lot was down to perhaps 15-cars and trucks. A few of them had steamed up windows. Most likely these folks hadn’t come for the movies, because no effort was made to clean glass.
I had a police spotlight on the driver’s side of my car. A friend helped me install a powerful aircraft-landing-lightbulb inside the housing. This was hooked to a 12-volt battery along with my 8-track tape player. The old Chevy was 6-volt at this time. Shining it on a couple of the fogged up cars got no response. A theater employee walked over asking us to knock it off.
Our little electric heater could barely keep up. The thick curly cord for this device poked through a window. Door glass could not be rolled up tight enough to keep the cold out. We tried stuffing napkins in the crack to no avail.
When our windows became fogged from nothing more than breathing, Jeff said it was time to go. He joked that perhaps someone we knew might see my distinctive car, and remember it as being full of guys that night.
“This could ruin our reputation!”, he said.
I knew what he meant. Years previous, we were sitting in Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on C Street with another friend, Tim Amundsen. Tim got up to use the restroom leaving Jeff and I on the same side of the table. Two girls started looking and smirking so Jeff quickly moved to the other side.
It’s fitting that the last outdoor movie I watched was at the Sundowner. The theater name seems appropriate. Sundowner permanently closed a few years after the Clint Eastwood series. I believe it was in 1979 or 1980. For a while after closing they used the grounds for special events. The complex was finally bulldozed.
It’s rare these days that I’ll attend a movie. Hearing the F-Bomb dropped every 10-seconds by an actor or actress doesn’t turn my crank.
A friend recently remarked after reading where someone was reopening an old drive-in in California,
“Perhaps some day these old theaters will make a comeback. With advances in speaker technology, it’d be a totally different experience.”
Jerry was right about speaker technology. The clarity of old vs new speakers would be 100 times better. Will a comeback ever come to pass?
I wouldn’t bet on it, at least not in Anchorage, Alaska!